“Quitting Sucks”: An Interview
By Jesse Bastide, Stockholm, Sweden
At the end of November, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Lubin. Since Ken is no slouch when it comes to the writing department, I’ll let him introduce himself right now.
“I am an Executive Athlete, Executive Recruiter, father and husband who loves to push the limits of physical and mental endurance. I love to see what the body and mind can achieve and intentionally put myself in difficult circumstances.” -http://www.mudandadventure.com/2013-death-race-recap-by-ken-lubin-tied-for-winner/
Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll learn if you read this entire interview:
What to do when you dislocate your shoulder 20 feet in the air in the middle of an adventure race.
The most bizarre and hardcore sports “quitting” story you’ve ever heard.
The “extreme suffering” method for making friends for life… in under forty hours.
How to train for grueling events 10 times longer than a marathon without getting a divorce or losing touch with your kids.
Suburban “Paul Bunyan” training that could land you in jail if you’re not careful.
The “slippery slope” weight loss method. (SPOILER: It’s a motivation thing!)
How to turn being “not the most gifted” into a massive athletic advantage.
Here we go…
JB: Tell me about your background.
KL: I’m a New Englander. I’m always looking for a good deal. [laughter]
I grew up outside of Worcester in Central Massachusetts. As a kid I did ski racing. That got me into the world of cycling (as training for ski racing.)
I used to ski race in the winter and bike race in the summer and I just did that for years and years. I got a degree in Sports Science from Colby Sawyer, and then I coached ski racing for 2–3 years after college. I coached at Brown University. I was the youngest Division 1 coach at the time; I was 22 years old.
After that I went up to Vermont, running the nightly program at Bolton Valley for a short stint. Then I finished my ski racing and coaching career at Carrabassett Valley Academy up at Sugarloaf.
At that point, my girlfriend (now wife) Allison said, “Are we doing this the rest of our lives?” And that was the end of that. [Laughter].
I got into the recruiting business in ’99. I started doing tech recruiting during the dot-com boom. And then I joined the firm I’m at right now, ZRG Partners, in 2002. When I joined there were 2 founders and myself working for them. Now we have about 90 employees around the world. I do global Executive Search in the financial services business.
That’s how I ended up in my career and doing what I’m doing.
JB: Did you have any favorite races in New England?
KL: I did. I really liked the cycling stage races because they were long and they were hard. I really liked the old Killington Stage Race and the old Fitchburg-Longsjo race.
That was about 25 pounds ago. But they were good because they were hard and they were also somewhat local.
I was a Cat 2 cyclist so I raced with the pros, which was always amazing. Then at that point too I was doing a lot of mountain biking, racing semi-pro mountain bikes for the regional Gary Fisher team in New England.
JB: Let’s rewind the tape a bit. Talk about your past some more. In what deep ways did your teens and 20s pattern you?
KL: It was a lot about the discipline. I liked to win. I’ve always liked to win. In order to win, you have to be more disciplined than the guy next to you. You have to train harder, you have to work harder, you have to work longer.
I was never really a gifted athlete as a kid. I grew up with divorced parents. I had a weight problem as a kid and decided I needed to get healthy.
That probably fuels me today. I still love to train. I still love to race.
JB: How old were you when you decided to overcome your weight problem as a kid?
KL: I was 14. It was pretty funny. There was a ski coach that we had who said, “Hey — you guys have to pass this physical test in order to keep skiing.”
That spurred me on.
From there on out it continued and became an addiction of mine.
I fell in love with training. To be honest, I think I liked to train more than I liked to race.
I loved racing, I loved to win, but most people don’t realize the journey is where it’s at.
People get so stressed out about the race or the final exam of being in school and, the way I always looked at it, if you weren’t ready by then, then you’re not gonna be ready. I’d see people stressed out studying for an all-nighter, and that won’t make any difference for you on test day.
You’re not going to lose weight going to a bike race by not eating the three days before. It’s going to hurt you much more than simply doing what you’re doing right now.
KL: I was fortunate and didn’t have to deal with a lot of injury stuff.
My only real injuries have come on more recently trying to do this stuff at 43.
Back in the day I crashed quite a bit. If anything it was more short term stuff. Just crashing.
Although… I did have a pretty good injury about three years ago. Funny story.
I was racing one of the Spartan races, the Ultra Beast (a 30 mile race at Killington, one of the obstacle course races.)
My shoulder dislocated.
It wasn’t the first time. It came out and continued to come out throughout the race.
What happened was, I fell in the woods and tweaked my shoulder and didn’t think about it. Then I was on an obstacle about 20 feet off the ground (in a net that was rolling), and my shoulder decided to pop out.
So I’m up off the ground, thinking Holy shit, they want to get EMTs up to me…ahh.
It had happened at a previous race and got reset really quick and not much happened.
So from up in that net I called down and said, “No, you’re not gonna help me.”
A buddy of mine I’d done a lot of races with, we were working together at this race (even though it was individual, we’d raced a bunch of adventure races together and knew each other well.) My buddy climbed up in that net with me and that’s when I told him what I wanted him to do.
I said, “PJ, pull my arm.”
He pulled it and it went right back into the socket. So I climbed down and kept going and kept racing. My shoulder came out a couple more times and he reset it a couple more times. We ended up placing 4th and 5th (in the money) by doing that.
PJ and I decided to do another race. We had already won a couple of these adventure races. We teamed up with another friend of ours and planned to go down to the World’s Toughest Mudder down in New Jersey.
Just before the race, I pulled out from the team. I told the guys I didn’t want to keep injuring myself. But then that didn’t sit right with me.
I thought, I can’t NOT do this…
I’d already set up a surgery date with my doctor (it was supposed to be the weekend of the race), so I went to talk to him about it. I told him, “I’ve got to do this race.”
My wife was with me. A year earlier she’d broken her leg, and my doctor was also her orthopedic surgeon. She asked the doctor, “Is it going to be worse for me or for him if he races?”
The doctor said, “I can fix whatever happens. So go race.”
I joined my team for the race. My shoulder came out 20–30 times during the event. Each time, I popped it back into its socket. You get pretty good at putting it back in with all that practice.
We got 3rd overall as a team.
I had surgery a week later; I’d torn my labrum. And that’s my big injury story.
I took 3 weeks off after the surgery, pulled my arm out of the sling, and then I was running again. And then ski racing.
JB: What are your priorities and how do you juggle them?
KL: My family, my career, and physical fitness are pretty much it.
I try to focus on 2–3 big events a year. I still train 6 days a week. But I do it when it doesn’t affect my family. I do it early in the morning when they’re sleeping. I’m fortunate that I can train at lunch in the middle of the day. On the weekends, I’ll be up all winter at 4:30 or 5 hiking up to Tuckerman’s or doing some backcountry skiing, then go skiing for the day.
But I’ve focused on keeping my training so it doesn’t screw up my family life or have people waiting for me. I train solo for that fact. If I want to do what I need to do, I just need to go out there and get it done.
JB: Do you have performance benchmarks?
KL: I have them all over the place. It’s terrible.
My benchmark right now is to run to the top of Mt. Washington from Pinkham Notch. My fastest time is 1:31:something. And I want to break an hour and a half.
My fastest time this year is 1:32. So I went up a minute rather than down a minute. I hold myself to that. I’m also trying to race up and down to see how fast I can do it. I just did that the other day at 2.5 hours.
A friend of mine has done it in 2:20, but I’m trying to break his best. I’m wicked competitive. [Smiles.]
Still — I don’t let it rule my life. I don’t need to win against my kids. It’s mostly an internal competitiveness. I’m probably my own worst enemy when it comes to that, competing against myself on any given day.
JB: Any memorable relationships through sport?
KL: Tons. Funny story.
There was a race in Vermont called the Death Race. The website used to be youmaydie.com.
The race has since been changed. It’s from the founders of the Spartan Race series. 2011, I did it the first time.
You don’t know when it’s going to start or when it’s going to end.
You don’t know any pieces of the puzzle.
It’s probably more psychologically difficult than physically difficult. The first year I did it, I knew it was going to be overnight. It was 24–30 hours long. I quit at 30 hours in. I was out of my element but still giving it a shot.
One of my biggest fears was the lack of sleep thing (and not being able to function). That was my biggest anxiety. I made it through one full night and into the next one. I was in 2nd or 3rd place when I quit. I was not prepared. I was (ridiculously) chafed in places you shouldn’t be chafed; I wasn’t prepared for the weather.
But you learn more from what went wrong than from what went right.
I came back the next year in 2012. I had over-prepared this time. One of the major components of the race was chopping wood. So for training, I went out and found the best splitting axe I could find, and I’d be running through the streets of Westborough with a weight vest on and an axe in my backpack.
I was running by million dollar homes and going through the woods. I’m surprised I didn’t get arrested. But I was going back to that race prepared. I was there to win.
I knew the race fit my style.
The first day, I ended up teaming up with two other guys. It was an individual event, but the pack mentality kicked in, and that works much better. These guys were PJ and Don ; we ended up suffering and doing crazy things together for 40 hours.
Example: We had to do origami in the middle of the woods in the dark.
Or how about this? We had to roll in a field that had grass six feet tall. We had to roll for about two to three miles. Picture rolling on your side for two to three miles, doing laps in a field.
There was one point where you had to stir a bucket of cow guts; it was unbelievable. People were throwing up all over the place. It was terrible. It was 80 degrees. You’re in this grass, and it’s almost unfathomable. It’s sort of crazy.
The three of us were in first place and they said it was going to be 20 laps. We said you can’t do this for 20 laps, it would take 1.5 days to do it. But we still got ourselves through and went back up over the mountain. The founder of Spartan was sitting on the other side. He said we had to get a bucket of rocks and go back up and over. This was 60-something hours into the race.
At that point we said No. We were 4–5 hours ahead of everyone else.
He said, “You’re quitting?”
We said, “We’re not doing this.”
“Sure. We quit. We’re done. We’re so far ahead of everyone else.”
They’d even moved the finish backward, to where we’d been 5 hours before.
The three of us quit in the lead. We became self-proclaimed winners (but we weren’t official winners because we quit.)
The race ended when the second-place finishers came through 4–5 hours after us.
It was probably more shocking to the founders that we quit. For us, there was nothing left to prove. We were all in our late 30’s. We were good with it.
But quitting sucks.
We had a year to sit and think about it.
PJ and Don and I formed a pretty close bond through that shared suffering.
There was a team event at Killington called the Spartan Ultra Beast. And it was 15 grand winner takes all. So we said, “Hey, we know we can do this as a team.”
Don flew back from Whistler where he’s a heli guide and owns a cat ski business. PJ came over from Rochester. We all met again at Killington. And we said, “Let’s go win the money.”
That’s what we did. We each got $5000. That was way more than I ever won doing anything else in my sporting life, so it was great.
The next year we came back and we did the Death Race again. We all finished right together in first place. We wanted to prove that the previous year hadn’t been a fluke.
PJ and Don and I became really good friends.
It’s good to know I can call any one of these guys anywhere and say, “Hey, let’s go meet in New Mexico this weekend to go do something”… and they’ll all show up.
Those are some amazing friendships I’ve made.
JB: Do you have people you look up to as heroes in sports?
KL: No. I hate to say it. No one is perfect. They all have flaws. Instead I’ll tap into the collective knowledge. Ask questions and figure stuff out. I learned it at a young age, growing up the way I did. I don’t necessarily trust a lot of people…
Everyone is in it for a different reason. To win you have to figure it out your own way. We’re all different. Some things work better than others. I can’t tell you how many athletes say, I’m vegan, or I’m paleo, or I’m this or I’m that…and they suck.
I’m thinking, If you ate some bread and pasta you might do better because you have some fuel. You have to be willing to experiment and try new things.
I don’t have mentors I look up to. I do my own research and experiment on my own.
JB: What are your favorite research sources?
KL: Podcasts and reading online. I love Outside magazine. I listen to Tim Ferriss. I’m always expanding knowledge and trying new things.
When I was younger and trying this stuff, I remember there was a pro bike race up in Lowell MA. They were talking about how the pros were eating Pop Tarts and drinking Coke. So I thought, I might as well try that out.
I like to self experiment.
JB: Did Performance Enhancing Drugs ever impact you athletic career?
KL: When I was bike racing… to be honest I was just naive. I never got sucked into that world. But a lot of people wanted to be like so and so and did what that person did. I didn’t do that.
Because of that, I didn’t know they existed. I probably would have tried them. It would have been interesting to see. That can lead down crazy other roads. I was competitive at a fairly high level without having to use them, and I had no idea that people were using them.
Now that I look back on it, I was competing against guys that are were all doped up — that’s why I could never really do anything.
I’m probably more pissed at the fact that all those guys were doing drugs and getting away with it, and that took away from my ability to win.
I had no idea that they even existed at that point. But I can’t really be angry if I didn’t know.
JB: Do you notice PEDs in masters competition?
KL: I don’t give a shit. I’m sure it happens. More masters athletes are getting busted for doping than any other athletes. Google it — masters athletes doping.
Cat 3 guys getting busted for doping. Really? You’re not making money. You’re not going pro.
It’s like in pro sports, I’m not going to go out and buy a Pats jersey and give more money to the Patriots. I’m not going to feed the machine.
JB: When it comes to Executive Athletes, what are you hoping to create?
KL: I love the community that it’s created.
I’ve talked to amazing people all over the world doing super cool things. People talking about their passion. If I dedicated the time I could probably turn it into something bigger. But for the time being, it’s a cool community of knowledge.
I always like to ask questions. I want to see what other people think. I want to see what other people do nutritionally. I want to see what makes them pumped up to do what they want to do. That’s valuable for me and for everyone else.
We all come from different worlds of performance.
There’s a lot of people in the community that weren’t active their whole lives. I was fortunate enough to continue bike and ski racing through college and after.
JB: What is your biggest strength athletically and professionally?
KL: It’s discipline and efficiency.
In order to pull off the stuff I do, you have to be highly disciplined and highly efficient. I get up and make lunches for the kids every morning. Allison my wife is in a crazy stressful job. More often than not at night I’m cooking dinner. But I’ve figured out a way to pull it all together.
I’m up at 5 in the morning. I grab a cup of coffee and read for 45 minutes or an hour and then get into it at that point. I’m in bed by 8:30 or 9 most nights with the kids. It supercharges your day and gets you out there. It’s discipline. It’s efficiency.
In my search business I’ve worked out how to do it. Work isn’t my life. It’s a great means to an end that allows me to do what I want to do.
I ski more and ride my bike more now than I did when I was doing it full time. I probably train 11–12 hours week — 1–1.5 hours each day and something longer on the weekends.
So my work is my work. Being a recruiter, you’re always on. Sometimes you have to talk at night, sometimes early in the morning, but I try to keep it as efficient as possible and set up a daily calendar.
JB: What are your favorite business books?
KL: Linchpin by Seth Godin. Most of the Seth Godin stuff is just amazing. It’s very practical. Gone are the days of our parents’ economy where you go in, work hard, and get the gold watch. Doing what I do, you get paid for your performance. You don’t perform you don’t get paid. You perform… you get paid.
Gary Vaynerchuk stuff is great too. Those are the two most recent guys. Then there’s always Think and Grow Rich and the standbys.
JB: What’s your current training philosophy? How do you do it?
KL: I train by feel. I don’t use a heart rate monitor or power meter. I know when I need to get my stuff together. When I’ve got a race coming up in a couple of months, I know I need to eat better and really start focusing on the events that are going to be part of the race.
I never stop training. It’s not like the world of cycling where you take 2 weeks off in Nov/Dec and start all over again and do the same thing.
I don’t believe in that. I think cross training is probably more important than not. I also strength train. I’m trying something new now. I’ve been doing Crossfit for a year and a half and I keep hurting myself. I’ve got a nagging injury in my back that keeps popping up.
I love Crossfit, the camaraderie.. but i did a self evaluation, and I love being outside more. I love running more. I love being outside on my bike more. It’s contrary to the whole Crossfit mentality. And constantly being taken out by a nagging injury sucks.
I’m transitioning away from that and doing more yoga and doing more endurance training.
JB: Do you ride your bike in any weather?
KL: I won’t ride my bike.
I’ll go snowshoeing. The roads suck in New England most of the winter. Right outside my office I can be on trails or golf courses very quickly. I’d rather do that. It comes down to efficiency. You go out hard on a run for an hour, an hour and a half, that’s the equivalent of going hard on the bike for 3–4 hours or so.
JB: Have you tried fat biking?
KL: I want to get a fat bike. This winter I’m thinking about it; if it’s a shitty snow year I’ll probably buy one of those. It’s huge in New England now. That and the gravel racing world is huge too.
JB: What is your favorite gear in your garage?
KL: I like my road bike. I have a Ridley Noah road bike. I love race skis and skis and that type of stuff. I love experimenting all winter with different types of setups in skiing. That’s my winter thing. I have a backcountry setup. I’m tempted to get another skating ski setup. But I’m not doing that unless it snows (otherwsie it sits in your garage for a long time).